Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Twenty-Eight Adventures, Part 26: Elemental Evil

As you might guess, I took a nice holiday break and let the blog slumber for a few weeks. I meant to start things up again last week, but I’ve had a hundred things going on with finishing up the stretch goal projects for Primeval Thule, prepping our Ultimate Scheme Kickstarter, and beginning the rewrite on my novel Valiant Dust. The blog seems to be the item that always slides to the bottom of the list.

Speaking of the blog, I’m finally getting close to finishing up my tour of old adventures I’ve worked on. It’s time to pick a new theme. An obvious one would be novels or game sourcebooks, but I’m a little tired of talking about myself, so I’m considering a more or less random tour through Games that Rich Likes.  Got any suggestions for things you’d like me to write about? Let me know!

One current event of note: The world is a less interesting place now that David Bowie has checked out. I discovered “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” when I was in college and played the hell out of that record. I had a few other Bowie albums and liked them pretty well, but Ziggy Stardust is genius, pure and simple. Everyone knows the title track, but I always liked a couple of the deep cuts like “Starman” and “Moonage Daydream” (both picked up recently for movie soundtracks, incidentally—I guess other folks like them too). Anyway, it really caught me off guard. Bowie was great, there was nobody like him.

#31: Princes of the Apocalypse
Shortly after I knocked out my work on the D&D Starter Set, Chris Perkins of Wizards of the Coast approached me to sound out Sasquatch Game Studio about WotC’s new “studio” model for producing big D&D adventures. Taking on a huge Forgotten Realms project wasn’t exactly on our radar—our plans post-Thule were centering in on my Ultimate Scheme boardgame—but we were intrigued by the idea, and we recognized that it would put Sasquatch “on the map” for the general gaming audience with a much bigger and more prominent product than we could pull together on our own. So, we decided that we were in. Focusing on the Elemental Evil campaign meant pushing Ultimate Scheme back, since El Evil (as I came to call it) would require 100 percent of our manpower and resources for six to nine months. In fact, that’s why we’re just now getting to an Ultimate Scheme Kickstarter; if we hadn’t done Elemental Evil, we would have launched the boardgame last year.

Dave, Steve, and I met with the D&D team at WotC (primarly Greg Bilsland and Chris Perkins) to dig into what they had in mind for Princes of the Apocalypse. The first thing that surprised us was that WotC wanted the Elemental Evil adventure to be set in the Forgotten Realms. “Really?” I asked. “I mean, really really? Because that’s always been Greyhawk, and people are going to holler about getting the chocolate in the peanut butter, aren’t they?” (Possibly a bad metaphor on my part, since chocolate and peanut butter are awesome together. It’s a reference to an old Reese’s ad campaign.) But Wizards was very sure about it: They wanted Elemental Evil in the Realms, and they even had a good idea of where they wanted set: The North.

Our first reaction was a bit of skepticism—after all, I know the Realms quite well, and I can tell you that there is more set down in print about the history of the North and every flyspeck village along the Long Road than just about any other corner of Faerûn. But as I looked at the area that Chris and Greg had identified, I realized that there was indeed an opportunity here where we could develop something really new and interesting for the Realms, while anchoring it carefully in the existing continuity. Wizards had also worked out the broad storyline of the adventure. What we had to do was to translate that story document into “actionable” plans. For example, Wizards asked us to make sure each of the four cults had a “surface outpost,” but we used that guidance to create sites such as Feathergale Spire and the Sacred Stone Monastery.

I wore a lot of different hats for Princes of the Apocalypse. First off, I wrote large sections of the adventure, including Rivergard Keep, Sacred Stone Monastery, the earth and water temples, and the temple of the Elder Elemental Eye. I was the art director for Sasquatch, which meant that I created the art orders for the book, contracted illustrators, and provided feedback to help develop sketches into finals. (Kate Irwin at Wizards was tremendously helpful in that task.) And finally I was the overall project manager for Sasquatch, which meant I was trying to ride herd on all the designers and editors, keep up with WotC’s deadlines, field WotC’s extensive, extensive, feedback, review everything that was being written, and pull together the book’s design turnover. I was originally going to write the earth and water nodes too, but I had to hand them off to talented freelancers Jeff Ludwig and Steve Townshend—I was just buried by the amount of things I was trying to do. Let’s just say it was a crazy nine months or so, and I learned some hard lessons.

While the process was brutal at times, I’m very pleased by the way the adventure turned out. As I’ve mentioned more than once in this blog series, I’m a big fan of sandbox-style play. Princes of the Apocalypse is the biggest and most ambitious sandbox adventure I’ve ever pulled together, and there are enough storyline events and investigations between the adventure sites to allow the players to feel like the adventure is naturally developing from the choices they make. I have a few regrets about things—for example, we needed to do a better job at helping the DM identify where NPCs and clues and story elements appear or recur. As it stands, the DM needs to study the adventure pretty carefully to get the most out of it. But Princes of Apocalypse rewards that effort with a great campaign.

Next Time: My Shadows of the Demon-Lord adventure, The Giant’s Tribute.


  1. I really appreciated all your efforts on the El Evil book; even if it is in FR (not my style). The book is put together excellently, and I really appreciated all of the web-aids that can be found. The nods to other game worlds was what inspired me to throw it into Thule. Thanx for the comment reply. This will be our group's first dive into 5th Edition and I can't wait! It does take several readings to grasp a fluid DM strategy.
    I'm a CAD & project design consultant for several engineering firms and have been under the gun for several projects lately myself. I sympathize with your stresses. It's all about the team you build up around you. How do you decide on what everyone's role is on your team? Sure, it's easy if they really want it, but how do you share your vision with a freelancer on a subject of fantasy? Sometimes, I really wish that I had a loyal clone that could handle all the minor tasks (and then dissolve after 8hrs).
    Really dig your stuff and enjoy the blog. As for future topics, just write about the inspirations that led to your works. What are you watching now and how is it shaping your future products?
    Long live Bowie. I wept like I lost a friend when I heard the news in my car. Rock on Goblin King!

  2. One of the many things I really like about PotA is that I can - and will - easily pull out the sections and use them elsewhere. We're about to begin a D1-3-inspired campaign in the Scarred South (4E rules, 4E timeline) and I wanted to go back to Gygax's original idea of tying D1-3 into the plots of elemental evil. But I only want one faction so, instead of designing the Earth-related parts of the campaign myself, I'm basically stealing from PotA. (And it's not a big job to do the conversions as 4E monsters are so easy - and more interesting - to put together.)

    Anyway, looking forward to Sasquatch's next partnership with WotC! :)

  3. Dear Mr Baker, I would like to comment absolutely off-topic.

    I enjoyed your "The City of Ravens" and "Prince of Ravens" most of any over DnD novels and, maybe, most of any other books I've read in general!

    What do you think of these works? Where they actually appraised by public? Is it possible to hope for Jack's return?

    Greeting from Russia and good luck on your projects. Max.

  4. Thanks, Max! I'm glad you enjoyed the books. Of all the Realms books I wrote, I have to say that "City of Ravens" and "Prince of Ravens" hold a special place in my heart. I just had more fun writing them. I think a lot of readers really liked Jack Ravenwild, too. I'm sorry to say I have no plans at the moment to return to Raven's Bluff -- the D&D book business is changing, and I don't think that WotC has any plans for more Jack Ravenwild. These days I'm working on a new military SF series for Tor. But if anything were to get me back on board with the Realms, I suppose it would be another Jack novel.

  5. Running PoTA currently - last session my poor level 3 PC group went to the Scarlet Moon Monastery, where the *mooks* have 2 fireball spells each (& 57 hp)! :-O

    A very scorched party fled back to Red Larch!